Tuesday, July 26, 2011

So, does God exist?

Ok people, let's just jump on in... no reason to screw around.

Yeah, I think, probably, maybe, God does exist.

There is a lot of great evidence (to my way of thinking) for the existence, or presence, of a higher power.

However, there's a funny attribute of pretty much all of that evidence.  It's all anecdotal.

Can evidence be anecdotal?  Well, yeah.  That's the nature of a witness.  In a court case, you don't have much in the way of statistical, objective evidence from the witnesses, you have anecdotal narrative; a story from someone about what they experienced first hand.

Testimony is, of course, the same word as witness.  The idea of testimony meeting is to get up there and tell about your EXPERIENCE with God. To witness.

Parenthetically, I will give homage to one of my very favorite musicians, David Bazan, who says simply, "Let go of what you know, and honor what exists.  Son, that's what bearing witness is." (yes, that's the type of witness he's talking about).

So, we run into this problem that God, however God is manifest, is not manifest in statistically relevant, consistent ways.  This is true even when God makes promises that sound provable.  The promise of the Book of Mormon at the end of Moroni is ostensibly given in the spirit of a test, like a scientific test.

If you do X, Y will happen.

The problem lies in the spotty results.  Some people think they got an answer, some don't.  I can't invalidate the spiritual experience of someone else, but I can easily point out that since there is no consistency of result, then despite the validity of the spiritual experience, it doesn't do anything for the truth claim.

What I mean is, if you were to take Moroni at his word, and then try to apply a statistical reading to his promise, you would almost certainly have to conclude that the Book of Mormon is false.  The promise is clearly not working for very many of the millions of people who have exposure to the book.  It's really not even working for the people who bought in and got baptized.  There's just too damn many of them that leave. The economics are all screwed up (a subject for another post).

Plus, the same experience that makes you think God is telling you the Book of Mormon is true is being identically replicated by a Muslim about the Koran, and a JW about their wacky theology.  And, if you bothered to look , you would find people who claimed a spiritual experience telling them the Book of Mormon isn't true.

It takes a special kind of hubris to presume that your experiences are authentic, while those of everyone else are not.  (Not surprisingly, humans are demonstrably blessed with just that sort of hubris.)

Let's bring this around.  I have completely abandoned the idea that acknowledging an encounter with the divine can reasonably be expected to provide me with metaphysical meaning, or any other kind of truth.  But I won't deny encounters with the divine.

It's an experience.  It's a subjective experience.  It is NOT objective.

I experience art subjectively.  That doesn't invalidate my interaction with art.  I just doesn't attempt to infuse it with greater objective meaning.

Anecdotal vs. Statistical
Subjective vs. Objective
Artistic vs. Scientific
Emotional vs. Rational

Are these false dichotomies?  I don't think so.  But I could be wrong about that.

There are so many experiences people have with the divine.  Why do I need to explain them away?  It is such a substantial part of human history and experience.

The only reason I can think of that I have to explain them away is if I am afraid of what they might mean.

But I have a simple answer for this:  They don't mean a damn thing.

I can weep in front of a painting.  I can feel spiritual rapture at a rock concert.

You may have a great (anecdotal) story about receiving a flash of inspiration.  You may have experienced a serious miraculous healing.  This stuff happens.  There is so much narrative experience that is not to be explained by the "it's all in your head" materialist response.

Once I acknowledge the probable existence of God, now what?  One of the biggest errors I see in the human experience is attempting to turn narrative experience into objective, and especially metaphysical, meaning. (I happily recognize that the very human desire to turn our narrative experience with the unexplained into theology is VERY evolutionarily ingrained in us.)

I think God probably exists.  And that's it.  I don't see how I can reasonably attempt to draw additional meaning from that acknowledgment.    

I think God probably exists because people from everywhere, believing everything, brush up against... God.

I believe I would be arrogant to dismiss their experiences, but I would be foolish to accept their conclusions.


  1. My wife wants me to acknowledge that Mormon theology is at least as measurably wacky as JW theology any day of the week. We're in a race to the wacky summit.

  2. I'm going to challenge your conclusion of "There probably is a God" with my thoughts. I'm sure they are nothing you haven't seen before, but I am sort of puzzled at your conclusion considering your understanding of cognitive dissonance and our evolutionary need to theologize. Please take this as a friendly challenge, as we don't know each other, and I don't want you thinking this is an attack, but rather my attempt to open a discussion.

    You seem at once to say "I understand that human minds are infinitely flawed in their attempt to understand the truth of what happened" and yet also "I can't dismiss all those God claims by those flawed human minds...there's just too many of them!"

    But surely you understand how flawed we are as witnesses. Eye witness testimony is one of the most horrible ways to find the truth, as has been shown time and again in research and study. Recently I saw a study where subjects were shown a televised popcorn ad with vivid imagery and detail, very rich observations about the flavor and smell. Thinking they were JUST there to rate the effectiveness of the ad, the subjects were brought back in several months later and asked about the ad again. But in the follow up, they were asked if they had tried the popcorn during the survey, and a significant portion of them said that they indeed had, despite the fact that they were never given any popcorn! The vividness of the ad, cleverly crafted by the researchers, convinced their reptile brains that they'd had an experience that they HAD NOT HAD.

    I've often found that those who "talk with God" happen to be talking to a God who falls into their lines of belief and understanding...and this seems to be the case with everyone he talks to...everyone's god looks so much like them! Quite a clever chameleon that God fellow!

    I guess once I stepped away from the table and thought "Huh, maybe there is no God." all the "evidence" for him started to look as significant as the evidence for UFO abduction. Just because someone says so doesn't mean I take it as truth, or even probably truth...EVEN if a lot of people say so.

    So I just have decided that failing some evidence, or something I’ve just missed, I believe he’s probably NOT there.

    Like I said, I’m not looking to argue with you about whose probably is more right. I’m just hoping to explain why I disagree on which is more likely, and hoping there might be a response from you to my thoughts…because I find your blog well worded, well thought out, and extremely interesting.

  3. G, I'll be agreeing with you and disagreeing with Steve: God probably does exist. I'd go further and state that the probability is very high. But I'd also agree with you that private religious/spiritual experience is a problematic basis for any specific religious claims. In philosophy of religion today, there are plenty of extremely powerful rational arguments for God's existence being discussed, and in my review of the literature to date - both defending and critiquing those arguments - I think quite a few are successful and give good reasons for believing in a God. (I'd also extend a friendly challenge to Steve to look into those rational reasons for believing in a God.)

    One point where I would disagree with you, G, is when you decline to draw any further inferences from the existence of God. Given the seemingly counterbalancing religious experiences that purport to favor incompatible religious claims, you have a good point - though, again, these things have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and there are sophisticated philosophical treatments of religious experience available. It seems that if a God does exist, and if this God bears even a vague similarity to the entity discussed in just about any theistic faith, then that would be an extremely important issue to investigate. I would also suggest that, apart from the private religious experiences of a disparate group of people, there might be other reasons to go further than bare theism.

  4. JB, I've been looking for 35 years...well, ok maybe not since I was a baby, but I've listened to a LOT of arguments on the God Claim. I will, politiely, suggest it's not worth a damn to say "Go look for the rational arguments for God's existence. They're out there. Here you go, here's zero hints."

    If you have some evidence(not a philosophical game like Kalam. If it's based on premises that I'm supposed to assume, then the conclusion ain't gonna surprise me) then please at least let me know what I should be looking for. I'm really interested in seeing it, but as of yet just remain unconvinced.

    As I've said recently: I try to be open minded(thought admit I'm a biased,flawed human), but at a certain point, I keep seeing the same empty arguments over and over, and I'm not going to stay open minded to the same stuff over and over.

    Arguments from design and careful rewordings of the First Cause argument just won't cut it. EVEN if they did all they'd get you to is deism. You sound like you have some real reasons to believe in a specific God. I understand blogspot comments aren't really "the place" to hash that out...but I'll say I'm interested in hearing your points.

  5. You make a powerful case for there being no good evidence... and then conclude that there probably is a God because of the multitude of narrative experience. While I generally liked the article, I found the end to be quite the non sequitur. And so I must agree with Steve, and disagree with JB and the article's author. On the conclusion that is, not the actual article, which I generally liked very much.

    Narrative experience of God (whichever version) isn't sufficient evidence to justify belief. Objective evidence doesn't exist. Philosophical arguments are ultimately circular or question begging.

    I wish there was actual proof for God. That would be fantastic. I would welcome good rational reasons for belief. But a case for God cannot be made on a foundation of logical fallacies or subjective experiences.

  6. Steve, with all due respect, it's rather difficult to recommend any particular resources or arguments when you do mention a couple arguments but don't give any reasons for dismissing them out of hand (even deism is an affirmation that a God exists, after all, and that's something; and I would dispute your characterization of, e.g., the KCA as a mere "philosophical game"), nor do I know what degree of familiarity you have with the literature. (I'm quite curious to know, though.) You are right that comment sections are generally a pretty limiting place to try to hash out anything of substance; I hope sometime, when I get the time, to work on drafting some posts on various such arguments over at my blog, even though its main focus is Mormonism and LDS-Evangelical dialogue rather than the perennial 'theism vs. atheism' debate.

    Gale, do you mean to say that all philosophical arguments are "ultimately circular or question begging"? Or just that all philosophical arguments in favor of theism are "ultimately circular or question begging"? Or, as a third option, just that all philosophical arguments in favor of theism with which you're currently familiar are "ultimately circular or question begging"? If you mean the first, I'd say that's probably overreaching considerably. To the extent that it's true, it would probably be such a general conclusion as to be practically irrelevant to any particular philosophical dispute. On the other hand, if you mean the second, I'd say that that's probably uncharitable and overstated - who can even know all the myriad arguments available, let alone categorize every single one as suffering from one of the same two flaws? On the third hand (which perhaps should be examined by a physician, since I'm told two is the requisite number), if you mean the third option, that could well be true, depending on what range of arguments you know. Many of the ones I've studied do not suffer from either of those two flaws, at least not in any way that is relevant to their success as rationally persuasive arguments.

  7. Lovely comments. I do my darndest to respond and amplify in tonight's post.

  8. One thing that I didn't address so much in the post is JB's assertions that there are arguments that don't suffer from the fatal flaws posited.

    In a nutshell, here is the problem as I see it.

    If you want to prove the existence of God (especially a God that conforms to your theological notions, because simply proving his existence is not enough, you need to prove that he agrees with you), you need God's consistent participation.

    God doesn't seem inclined to participate in these games.

    So, one is left to beg the question, use circular reasoning, or some other logical fallacy.

    There aren't many other options.

  9. JB, as I said, I don't think here would be the place for me to lay out my objections to KCA, or the like.

    I'll let you know that my reading of the literature, I am sure, is not nearly as fleshed out as your own. I've read some stuff, some I found interesting, and some I found worthless *cough*comfort*cough*.

    I've only so much time to devote to a being that I'm pretty sure is not there. I'll listen to anyone who honestly wishes to lay out a good argument, but I'm honestly not really interested in the topic enough to devote hours of research and reading to it. If you tell me "In 15 years of reading you can find the proof of God you're looking for." I'll have to decline. But this is mostly because I'm, yes, biased to believe that 15 years will be a wild goose chase, and thus not interested in that amount of investment. If, however, an argument, or explanation can interest me enough to think there MIGHT be something there, then I'm willing to give it a look. But much like reading the Book of Mormon. I've tried...I didn't find much good there. I'm not going to waste the rest of my life reading and praying about it. I (like you) am fairly well convinced there is no truth (regarding God, at least) to find in there.

  10. JB, I was a bit too brief in my comment. I certainly didn't intend to say or imply that all philosophical arguments are "ultimately circular or question begging", or even necessarily that all philosophical arguments for the existence of god are "ultimately circular or question begging", but rather that all philosophical arguments for the existence of god with which I'm currently familiar are "ultimately circular or question begging" (in other words the third hand).

    While I am certainly as an individual limited in my exposure to ideas and proofs for god and am capable of error and misunderstanding, I have spent a good deal of time specifically searching after and studying the best arguments (that I can find) for god, but have found myself sorely disappointed. The cosmological argument question begs and uses special pleading. The ontological argument relies on god as a premise and the unsupported claim that concepts can be or become real by virtue of definition. The teleological argument assumes that complexity must arise from greater complexity, but then exempts something called god from this requirement (and ignores that complexity can and does emerge from simplicity).

    I've searched high and low among those I just listed and many more (including the argument from morality, the transcendental argument, etc) but find no good evidence or argument for god.

    My statement was overly simple, and I should have said: "I've encountered no philosophical argument for the existence of god that is not circular, question beg, or rely on unsupported assumptions".

    If, as you said, you do know of arguments that do not suffer from these flaws, or know of errors and/or misunderstandings I may have that you could correct, I would be most glad to hear them.

    I would rather be right than to think I am right, and will readily admit to all that I could be wrong about this, just as I am assuredly wrong about a good many things. If I can be corrected I wish to be. Not that this is the best forum for lengthy discussions. Anyone may email me, though, if the fancy strikes.

  11. Thanks for your comments, guys! I'm enjoying our exchange. Steve, I agree with you that a comments thread isn't a good place to hash out objections and whatnot to the KCA or any other philosophical argument. If either you or Gale want to, you can send me a Facebook message or e-mail laying out your objections in greater detail (I know all three of us are part of the ME Facebook group), and I'd be glad to see if I could find solutions to those perceived difficulties. And calling Ray Comfort's contribution to the discussion "worthless" is, well, far too kind to him, heh. I have little tolerance for folks like him and his atheist counterparts who make their own respective sides look ridiculous and distract people's attention from serious, sophisticated treatments of real arguments.

    For the KCA, my favorite book thus far is Mark Nowacki's 2007 The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God, supplemented by Alexander R. Pruss' The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment. (Not that W. L. Craig's original 1979 The Kalam Cosmological Argument is bad or anything, or for that matter his contributions to Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, but Nowacki includes the best aspects of those and takes it further, as is suitable for such an up-to-date treatment. Nowacki not only lays out the argument (which by no means begs any questions or uses special pleading in any remotely meaningful sense) but also presents a fairly exhaustive list of the objections and replies to those objections; Pruss' book defends a very strong version of the PSR, which is much more than is necessary for the KCA or most other cosmological arguments.

  12. [Part II]:

    For the teleological argument, I prefer cosmic-level arguments to anything relying biological design/complexity. Aside from the useful contributions to Neil Mansen, ed., God and Design, my favorite book for this argument is Rodney Holder's 2004 God, the Multiverse, and Everything: Modern Cosmology and the Argument from Design; this could be surpassed, I suppose, by Robin Collins' forthcoming The Well-Tempered Universe. I'm eagerly awaiting that one. This does not assume that "complexity must arise from greater complexity", though neither do some sophisticated forms of other design arguments, really; all it does require is that the best explanation for certain features of something is that they are intentional, which is a form of reasoning we use all the time.

    As for the ontological argument, your objection mostly is directed toward the Anselmian version, though I don't think it quite overturns even that one. I prefer the modal form put forward by Alvin Plantinga in, among other works, his excellent The Nature of Necessity. It may be unlikely that an atheist will accept one of the key premises, but it isn't impossible, and so in any meaningful sense, there's no circularity there.

    It's been a while since I've paid much attention to other arguments, and so I'm not as familiar with that literature, though I've seen powerful forms of the moral argument (ones that I've never seen refuted, at least), and an assortment of arguments from consciousness/reason seem promising as well. Many of these arguments and others are covered, if memory serves me rightly, in In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment, edited by James Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, among other works such as Stephen T. Davis' God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs. I've heard good things of the recent Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, but that's one I haven't read yet.

    Of the books I've mentioned, have either of you read any of them? I'd be interested in hearing your reactions to them, if you have. (Steve may be pleased to know that, even at a very relaxed pace, I imagine it would take less than 15 years to get through them!) Either way, I know the two of you have both said that you've spent a number of years examining various arguments for and against God's existence, and have both leaned in favor of the latter view. I really am curious what some of the sources you both used were. Perhaps there will be a few I should look into, after all!

    (Postscript: As for G's objection, I fail to see why so many atheists are very concerned with the question of whether some specific god exists, right from the outset. First we can simply examine arguments for whether some god, any god, exists, and then worry about the problem of identifing him, her, or it with any eligible representative from earth's pantheons. I also don't see why "God's consistent participation" is necessary, whatever is meant by that phrase; that seems to be setting a quite unreasonable standard, much as do creationists who insist on observing large-scale evolutionary transitions happen before their eyes. The arguments for and against the proposition(s) in question should, I think, be evaluated on their own merits, and then in light of what they indicate, each person should draw the conclusion that seems most likely and responsible - whether that assessment is done through Bayesian calculations, inference to the best explanation, or some other means.)

  13. JB, I think we've fallen into a potential problem of augmenting the scope of our argument with each additional comment. I would love to engage in a discussion/debate with you regarding the arguments for and against the existence of God, but if we do, we should better define how we go about it.

    Rather than me offering objections to all of the arguments we've both referenced in greater detail, I would invite you (if you are interested) to send me a message laying out your favorite argument and we can discuss from there. I would prefer this as you are have the affirmative case (arguing for the existence of God) and my position is mostly a response to that case, as opposed to making a claim that God does not exist. I do not affirm the non-existence of God, but rather that I have not found any evidence or reason valid or sufficient to elicit belief. I'd prefer that you initiate any further discussion simply to ensure that we do indeed focus on your favorite arguments.

    Again, this is only if you feel inclined, but I would welcome the opportunity to engage in the discussion.

    Either way, I am curious about your current beliefs. I presume that you do not hold a traditional Mormon viewpoint (based on your involvement in the ME facebook group), but you do believe in God. How do you define 'God' and what views about 'God' do you hold?

  14. JB, while you directed the question to G, I'd like to take a stab at responding to your last comment to him.

    Most atheists want to discuss specific beliefs in God (or beliefs about a specific God) because it better addresses the actual thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the individuals being addressed. Most believers in God aren't Deists. While the arguments for a generic God are certainly worth disusing, we shouldn't forget that the Theist usually has far more specific beliefs that are also worth addressing. To do otherwise would to largely ignore the more damaging and dangerous aspects of religious belief.

    Most atheists I know or am familiar with are more interested in rationality and skepticism than Theism alone. From their (and my) vantage point any irrational belief is worth arguing against. I would rather persuade someone to rational skepticism than atheism any day.

    I would presume that the "God's consistent participation" comment by G was an allusion to the slippery nature of evidence for God in most belief systems. Prayers are "answered" seemingly at random, and miracles are not forthcoming in easily evidenced ways unless we expand the scope of the word miracle to include standard observed phenomena such as childbirth.

    It would certainly help if the God of a specific religion, such as say the Mormon faith for instance, who has offered explicit promises (such as Moroni 10) gave honest seekers consistent responses. Instead we get the same confused results that most prayer ends up with... yes, no, maybe and no response at all. On a grand level this seems to identify a weakness in the method of knowing reliable, objective "spiritual truth".

  15. Thank you, Gale! I'll hopefully get around to e-mailing you later this week, when I have the chance to first refresh my memory on the details of some of the arguments. (In the meantime, I've 'friended' you on Facebook.) As far as my own beliefs go, I'm an Evangelical never-Mo, having been raised originally in a non-religious home. So when I speak of God, I generally mean to pick out God as described in, say, the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon in terms of a specific identification.

    Good reflections on the issues of specificity. You're right to want to discuss specific religious beliefs that individuals have. I think one problem with certain atheistic approaches I've seen, however, is the tendency to dismiss an argument on the grounds that it doesn't tell us everything we need to know about the entity in question, or doesn't identify one particular entity out of a category indicated. The flaw with this is, I think, the same as if one were to dismiss an argument in favor of evolution on the grounds that the argument fails to specify an exact model of the evolutionary process(es). With regard to consistent participation, I agree insofar as those sorts of things are being offered forth as evidence, as with "Moroni's promise". (For my part, I took it and came away with a pretty strong 'spiritual testimony' that the LDS Church was wrong.) I don't think arguments from answered prayer are ever really wise moves, since - among other reasons - it risks mechanizing the whole process. Individual miracle claims could be good evidence, depending on the strength of attestation involved. Most of them, particularly the vast bulk of claims of modern healing I've heard, are rather lacking in that department. (Heh, one of my former roommates was the sort of Pentecostal who makes Benny Hinn look tame, and he talked me into attending this bizarre service where I ended up as the subject of a faith-healing endeavor... The results of that were certainly enlightening. I may need to retell that story on my blog at some point.)

  16. Gale was right on in expanding my thoughts, and I've still been planning to respond to this, but I want to interject quickly and offer to publish the summary of your favorite argument as its own post on this blog so that we can discuss it.